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Bill Naughton and the art of the short story

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    #76
    Flannery O'Connor's short stories were on the list of set texts when i did my teacher training in France. The racism didn't frighten me as much as the pitiless fundamentalist catholicism. Her depiction of humans as these pathetic, fallen creatures, flailing around in our own muck, and the way she suddenly withdraws her empathy from them, to remind us that even when their sins may be comprehensible they remain unforgivable, is terrifying, but the writing is so compelling that i found myself entertaining her point of view for longer than i would ordinarily be able to justify.

    After reading O'Connor you can safely take a dip into the writings of a violent psychopath and come out feeling less unsettled.

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      #77
      Originally posted by laverte View Post
      After reading O'Connor you can safely take a dip into the writings of a violent psychopath and come out feeling less unsettled.
      Heh heh. I was so focused on the racial aspects of her writing that I barely noticed the religious, other than thinking that the various oddballs and nutters with religious convictions reflected the white social fabric of the south. But it seems she was slamming Protestantism when portraying most such characters. I should probably have read up on her before I started, but then that might have put me off reading the collection at all.

      One of the stories, Revelation, has a racist old hag Mrs. Turpin sitting in a doctor's waiting room loudly running her mouth off about the quality of her cotton-picking workers. Eventually a college-aged girl gives her a mouthful in return, and as a reader you're glad about this and assume you know where the writer's sympathies lie. According to the New Yorker piece, though, she wrote to her friend Maryat Lee, “You know, I’m an integrationist by principle & a segregationist by taste anyway. I don’t like negroes. They all give me a pain and the more of them I see, the less and less I like them. Particularly the new kind.” A few weeks after that, and just before she went into hospital (10 weeks before she died, in 1964), she signed off a letter to the same correspondent as "Mrs Turpin". I'm assuming a degree of self-irony and self-awareness there. That is, she knew segregation was morally wrong, but admitted to close friends that that her own personal preference would be to keep it.

      Yes, overall it's bleak stuff - she seems to hate almost all her characters equally. But you also can't help but feel it's a valuable insight into a certain malicious way of seeing the world (that is, from the point of view of a well-off white southerner) that has the bonus of being quality literature, rather than some bigot barking across the bar. You also wonder if she might have changed her views if she'd lived longer, and if her world-view was warped by being diagnosed with a disease she knew would kill her while she was still young.

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        #78
        That last paragraph is spot on, although i imagine the 1960s would only have hardened her views: she wouldn't have had any truck with Vatican II, let alone Malcolm X. But it brings up the question: would you recommend reading her? Her best stories absolutely are quality literature. Then again, if we regret that, say, John Updike wasted his gorgeous sentences on writing about pestering women, isn't it fair to say that O'Connor's great artistry also draws us down a dead end? i mean, i think i'd be tempted to suggest reading her to anyone who thinks that misanthropy is a Jack Dee stand-up routine or the biting satire of Martin Amis. But can we get anything out of it other than astonishment at the depth of her contempt for humanity? Is the insight it offers into her coherent but closed and dogmatic thinking intrinsically valuable? It's been 15 years since i studied her so i can't say, but i still have my copy of her stories, and i've never once been tempted to open it.

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          #79
          I haven't opened mine, either.

          And yet I was once very taken with her craft. She was a horrible person, but a terrific writer. So someone in the Philip Roth category (though I think O'Connor is a better writer and arguably a better person). The source of my personal discomfort (as with Roth) is that one cannot separate the horribleness from the writing, it is infused throughout her work (like la verte, the particularly toxic Catholicism is more striking to me than the racism, though that likely says at least as much about me as her).

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            #80
            Originally posted by laverte View Post
            That last paragraph is spot on, although i imagine the 1960s would only have hardened her views: she wouldn't have had any truck with Vatican II, let alone Malcolm X. But it brings up the question: would you recommend reading her? Her best stories absolutely are quality literature. Then again, if we regret that, say, John Updike wasted his gorgeous sentences on writing about pestering women, isn't it fair to say that O'Connor's great artistry also draws us down a dead end? i mean, i think i'd be tempted to suggest reading her to anyone who thinks that misanthropy is a Jack Dee stand-up routine or the biting satire of Martin Amis. But can we get anything out of it other than astonishment at the depth of her contempt for humanity? Is the insight it offers into her coherent but closed and dogmatic thinking intrinsically valuable? It's been 15 years since i studied her so i can't say, but i still have my copy of her stories, and i've never once been tempted to open it.
            No, I wouldn't recommend her, as such, unless I wanted to provoke a discussion. "So, students, this was written by one of the more intelligent and literate white people in Georgia at the time, and it's still lauded by the literati of the 21st century." I've used chunks of my posts above to file a 2-star review on GoodReads. I'll be honest - if I'd filed a review without any background, I'd have given the book three stars. But the background matters, doesn't it? It's why I've just crossed the Philip Roth biography off my 'to buy' list, and I really, really wanted to read that.

            On a different track, I do have a bit of a problem with some 'classic' short story writing, and this was the case with some of the Elizabeth Bowen stories too - that is, they just end seemingly in the middle, leaving you high and dry. Now, I don't mind open endings, ambiguous endings, endings that leave you to interpret the story for yourself, to decide for yourself where the character(s) may go next. It's very much a 'thing' in short story writing. But it's a delicate craft. Sometimes, you just feel like the writer got fed up, or lazy, or maybe didn't have a clue what they were doing. It's not an especially deep critical reaction to wonder, 'What the fuck?', I know, but there are stories by acclaimed 'heritage' writers for which that's the only response I can muster. The adulation is so universal and stretches back for decades that no one's inclined to say, 'Wait, that was a story? What was the story?'

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              #81
              Maybe the very word "story" leads to expectations which aren't always fulfilled. It suggests some kind of linear and/or chronological progression which can stymie other ways of writing.

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